SHANE HEFTED the carton of beer onto his shoulder and attempted to shut the boot. As usual, the busted locking mechanism resisted. He tried twice more before swearing loudly, setting the beer on the ground, and using both hands to slam the blasted thing into submission. Like so many aspects of his life, his car was in sore need of an overhaul, but he couldn’t afford anything save urgent repairs at present. All his spare cash went toward paying off the divorce settlement. Whenever he thought of that final figure owed, the words blood and stone came to mind. He’d had to take out a small loan to cover it, pushing back his plans to get out of the rental circus and buy his own place. Life sucked.

He picked up the beer again and stepped toward the curb. As he did, his thong slipped, coming clear off his foot and nearly sending him into a pavement face-plant. Thankfully, his balance had always been good, and a few hops helped him remain upright until he could get his errant footwear under control.

The world was definitely out to get him. He probably should have stayed home and drowned his sorrows in private. On the sofa, in front of the TV, a cold beer in hand, surely nothing could have gone wrong. However, had he given in to temptation and missed the party, he’d never have heard the end of it.

Matty’s Boxing Day Bash was an annual affair. Every 26 December, with family commitments out of the way, all the lads got together for an afternoon of barbies and beer. Well, an afternoon and an evening, really, since it rarely ended before midnight. It was a twelve-hour slog designed to separate the men from the boys. Most years he looked forward to the chance to catch up with friends, some of whom he only saw on rare occasions now they were all off living their independent lives. This time things were different. Since the divorce, the others treated him as if he were an armed grenade about to go off. No one knew what to say, and it made him feel like a pariah.

He’d just stay for a bit, he decided as he steeled himself for what lay ahead. A couple of drinks and some grub, and then he could say he’d put in an appearance. After that he’d leave the others to enjoy themselves while he headed home to drink alone.

It didn’t help that the day was a stinker. Barely eleven thirty and already the mercury had soared to a scorching 41°C, if his car’s temperature gauge was to be trusted. In this case, he didn’t doubt its accuracy. He was in cotton shorts and a T-shirt, and both were sticking to him, the sweat pooling under his arms to create two uncomfortable wet patches.

After adjusting his grip on the carton of beer, Shane approached the tall wooden gate that led directly into Matty’s backyard. He tried to knock with his foot, but no one heard him over the music and chatter, so he had to set down his burden yet again to work the gate latch himself. Once inside, he moved through the crowd, nodding and returning greetings.

As always, Matty was manning the barbecue. Sausages and steaks sizzled on the grill, and Shane couldn’t deny the scent was heavenly. He’d definitely have a snag or two before he departed. It would be rude not to when Matty had put in such effort. Hot food on a hot day might have seemed incongruous, but Shane was a firm believer that there was never a wrong time to light up the barbie. It was un-Australian not to do so whenever the chance presented itself.

He waved the beer overhead and caught Matty’s eyes. “Hey, Matty! Where should I put this, mate?”

“The esky’s full,” Matt called, looking down to turn the sausages. “Pop ’em in the fridge for now.”

Shane headed for the back door and hoisted the carton onto his shoulder while he opened the fly screen. Stepping into Matty’s kitchen was like throwing oneself headfirst into an oven. Clearly the aircon was playing up again. Or else Matty simply hadn’t bothered to turn it on, considering everyone had congregated outside, as they did most years.

Not quite everyone, Shane amended when he glanced into the lounge. Someone was lying on Matty’s sofa, an arm slung over his face. It was hard to be sure with the bloke’s visage obscured, but Shane didn’t think he recognized him. Whoever he was, he was tall and slim, with skin so pale it looked as if he’d never seen any sun.

Shane observed him for a moment, watching the rise and fall of his chest, but then he shook himself out of his stupor and returned to his task. He shouldn’t disturb the guy. Maybe he was feeling a little tender after a big night. It happened.

Upon opening the fridge, Shane found it chock-full. At first glance he feared it would be impossible to add so much as a grain of salt to the heaving load. However, once he cracked the carton, separated the bottles, and jiggled things around a little, he was able to squeeze his offerings among the rest. While he was there, he grabbed an already-chilled pale ale and popped the cap.

The first sip of cold beer was so good, he nearly moaned. What a relief after all the heat! Had the aircon been going, he might have been tempted to remain indoors awhile longer, but since there was little difference in temperature in or out, he figured he’d join the others. The sooner he made some small talk and got some food in him, the sooner he could leave.

Spotting some stubby holders on the countertop, he snagged one, slotted his drink into it, and then returned to the garden.